Pakistani schoolgirl and campaigner for girl’s education, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year, has won the EU’s Sakharov human rights prize. She will be invited to receive the award at a ceremony in Strasbourg on 20 November.

Malala gave her first public speech in September 2008, entitled, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to an education?”. When all girls’ schools under Taliban control were closed in January 2009, she started to blog for BBC Urdu under the pseudonym of Gul Makai, a heroine from folklore. The blog brought fame to Malala and her fight. Threats to her family followed as soon as her identity was revealed, leading up to an assassination attempt in October 2012, when she was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen while returning home on a school bus.

Swat, Malala’s hometown where the near-fatal tragedy happened, had always been a devout and conservative region like other parts of north-west Pakistan. By 2007, what was happening was very different; radio broadcasts threatened Sharia-style punishments for those who departed from local Muslim traditions, and most ominously, edicts were made against education. The edict which now has the world’s attention, due to Malala, came at the end of 2008, when the local Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah issued a dire warning – all female education had to cease within the month, or schools would suffer consequences.

Malala quickly realized that her way of life, i.e. going to school, was under threat. When a journalist from BBC Urdu asked her father (who maintains his own school in Swat with more than 1000 pupils) about young people who might be willing to give their perspective on life under the Taliban, he suggested Malala. The result was the Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl, a blog for BBC Urdu, in which Malala chronicled her hope to keep going to school and her fears for the future of Swat. She saw it as an opportunity. “I wanted to speak up for my rights,” she said.

Malala Day

July 12, 2013 was Malala’s 16th birthday. To celebrate Malala Day, the global community came together to highlight the leading role that youth can play in enabling all children to get an education. She marked the day by giving her first public speech since the shooting, dedicated to the importance of universal education at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.  In support of the UN Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative, international youth leaders convened at the United Nations and in cities around the world to support reaching for the goal of having all children, including girls, in school and learning by 2015.

Aside from Malala Day, the Malala Fund also started its charity work last November with the aim of changing the current situation of adolescent girls in the developing world, who are denied a formal education because of social, economic, legal or political factors. In denying girls education, society loses one of its greatest and most powerful resources.  The Fund’s solutions are grounded upon inspired innovation,  girl-centric approaches to education that support the Fund’s goal of creating a world where every girl reaches her true potential.

In Memoriam Andrei Sakharov

The Sakharov Prize for free speech is awarded by the European Parliament annually in memory of Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. It was established in December 1988 by the European Parliament to honour individuals or organizations who dedicate their lives to the defence of human rights and freedoms, particularly the right to free expression. The 50,000 euro ($65,000) prize is considered Europe’s top human rights award.

For this prize intended to honour exceptional individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism and oppression, Malala’s challengers were: Reeyot Alemu and Eskinder Nega who are Ethiopian journalists serving prison terms on charges  of terrorism for criticising the government, Ales Bialatski, Eduard Lobau and Mykola Statkevich on behalf of all Belarusian political prisoners, the  “Standing Man” protests in Turkey, The CNN Freedom Project: Ending Modern-Day Slavery, as well as the rather controversial personalities of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Edward Snowden.

Announcing the laureate, Martin Schulz, president of the EP said, “by awarding the Sakharov Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the European Parliament acknowledges the incredible strength of this young woman. Malala bravely stands for the right of all children to be granted a fair education. This right for girls is far too commonly neglected. Malala’s example reminds us of our duty and responsibility to the right to education for children. This is the best investment for the future.”

Nominations for Sakharov Prize can be made by political groups, or at least 40 MEPs. The Foreign Affairs and Development committees vote on a shortlist of three finalists based on the nominations, and later the Conference of Presidents chooses one Laureate. Malala was nominated jointly by the EPP, the S&D, ALDE, Jean Lambert (Greens, UK), and the ECR. Joseph Daul, head of the European People’s party said right after the announcement, “Today, we decided to let the world know that our hope for a better future stands in young people like Malala Yousafzai.”